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Pregame notes: Alzner-Niskanen pair limiting opportunities for opposing top lines

Winnipeg’s Chris Thorburn is checked by Karl Alzner Karl Alzner (27) as Matt Niskanen (2) and Brett Connolly defend. (John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP)

CHICAGO — Through 40 minutes against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night, the Washington Capitals managed to contain one of the league’s most lethal duos, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, to a single shot attempt.

The solution was the Capitals’ own dynamic defensive duo — Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen — who played their season highs in minutes in shutting down Chicago’s top line. Toews, Kane and Nick Schmaltz didn’t have a shot on goal for most of the night, and it was just Kane who ultimately managed to put a puck on net, tallying three shots on goal in the Blackhawks’ third-period push.

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“We did a really good job,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought some of the most effective chances they had, they were really their third and fourth line today. They got some really good looks. I don’t think Kane and Toews are going to miss all the looks that the other guys got.”

Such defensive showings have become expected from Niskanen and Alzner, Washington’s unheralded shutdown pair. Tasked with the most challenging defensive assignment in every game, they have been consistently up to the challenge.

On a Capitals team that has allowed the second-fewest goals at five-on-five and that’s ranked fourth in fewest shots against per game (27.2) and third in goals against per game (2.15), Alzner and Niskanen lead the way in limiting offense. The two are rarely dominated by an opponent’s first line; a team must use its its depth to beat Washington.

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When the Capitals played Chicago, the Islanders, Colorado, Florida and Calgary, the opposition’s top trio was hardly noticeable. In other contests, the first line may have had its chances, but it was still kept off the score sheet at even-strength.

“Well, they’re really talented, a couple guys there [who are] obviously all-world players,” Niskanen said of the Blackhawks’ first line. “I think we frustrated them a bit in the neutral zone. It’s pretty ugly sometimes when you’re stacking guys across the blue line, but it sure can frustrate other team’s top players if they can’t generate speed and possession across our blue line, so a pretty good job there. And just efficient breakouts — we don’t give many freebies off turnovers.”

>>> Entering the season, Trotz made improved three-on-three play a goal for the team, as he thought the Capitals should’ve been better last year than they were in the new overtime format. In 19 three-on-three overtime periods last season, they won seven and lost six, while six others were decided in a shootout.

The Capitals have played in three overtime periods this season and have won two games in three-on-three, including Friday night’s in Chicago. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, neither team scored in the overtime, and Washington lost in the shootout.

“It’s not necessarily anything systematically,” Trotz said. “It’s more philosophy and thought process. We talked about how that was an area where there are times when you have to be patient and there are times you have to have position and there are times when you have to worry about possession. … Sometimes you try to force things and it ends up going the other way. So sometimes, you’ve just got to reorganize and hang on to the puck and do things with it. I’ve thought we’ve been able to do that more, not necessarily systematically but more of a philosophy in our decision-making, and that process is better.”

>>> With no morning skate, it’s unclear what the lineup will look like against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night. With goaltender Braden Holtby playing against the Blackhawks on Friday night, it’s safe to assume backup Philipp Grubauer will get the start at Carolina.

It’s also possible defenseman Nate Schmidt gets back into the lineup after being supplanted by Taylor Chorney for a game, and after being scratched for four straight games, Brett Connolly might make an appearance for either Daniel Winnik or Zach Sanford.

Here’s a guess at what the lineup will look like Saturday:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Justin Williams
Zach Sanford-Jay Beagle-Daniel Winnik

Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Nate Schmidt

Philipp Grubauer (starter)
Braden Holtby

Brett Connolly
Taylor Chorney